We hear it all the time: Get good grades in school and you'll go places. But how does hard work in high school translate to success in innovation? Are the students at the top of the class the people who drive disruption through the industries that support our lives?

Not even close.

That's according to a study from Karen Arnold, researcher from Boston College. Arnold followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians from graduation forward. She found that, of the 95 percent who graduated college,

  • the average GPA was 3.6
  • 60 percent received a graduate degree by 1994
  • roughly 90 percent are now in professional careers
  • 40 percent of those in professional careers are in the highest-tier jobs

In short, the valedictorians and salutatorians had extremely successful careers and were able to do quite well for themselves. But in terms of being disrupters, the high achievers woefully missed the mark, failing to stand out as true visionaries.

Why top students fall short

Arnold cites two big reasons why top students generally don't set themselves apart as progressives. The first is that schools, which usually are highly structured, reward conformity. Grades are, in a big sense, a measure of the ability to follow the rules and work or think in a particular way. They are not a good indicator of overall mental capability. Secondly, schools don't reward following a passion. Instead, they force students to look at a everything from history to physics as part of a generalized curriculum. Subsequently, although top students might know a lot of information across many subjects, they're not able to gain true expertise in any one area. They also tend to see their job as getting the A, not as learning.

Comparing top students with those who struggled, Arnold found that students who got worse grades usually do have passions they want to concentrate on and master. They feel constricted by the rigidity of classes, but they genuinely are interested in learning. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg are all examples of individuals who fit Arnold's portrait, performing poorly in the educational setting or experiencing disciplinary problems.

School success or not, all students have their role

Arnold's findings by no means translate to a lack of importance on the part of students who have school success. These individuals offer businesses the discipline and structure that's necessary to maintain practical operations. They also can bring people together, making teams hum with efficient delegation and a keen grasp of facts and social dynamics. Their efforts can yield great success, both personally and for their companies. But when the world needs new ideas, it's not necessary to look only at the individuals with perfect coursework or degrees. The best innovators, it appears, aren't always the ones at the top.